2020-09-28 4 min read


Notes, 2020-09-28.

I think a lot about how people find the things they need before a project, probably because it's one of my favorite parts of my own creative process. I have fond memories of wandering through the library stacks while working on research papers; I didn’t enjoy writing the papers (at all), but the serendipitous feeling of finding an unexpected source was special. I get similar feelings when wandering through a hardware or craft store when working on a new project. It's a treasure hunt without a map.

Such sense-rich experiences are hard to create online. And as more commerce moves to the web (and as a pandemic makes aimless wandering unwise), I worry that we are in danger of forgetting the value of this type of exploration.

Part of me wonders if we don’t scratch this itch with all the feeds we scroll through today. The serendipity is engineered, of course, and the spatial and tactile aspects of discovery are completely missing. Is more technology the answer? Less? If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

-James Coleman

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~23% of opens) was a longline tuna fishing boat designed to reduce crew stress.

Planning & Strategy.

  • The American Machinists' Handbook and Dictionary of Shop Terms from 1920. The reference dictionary that starts on page 645(!) is useful, even today.
  • One of my favorite podcasts is Cool Tools, an interview show where talented maker types share 3 or 4 of their favorite tools and how they use them. I appreciate the simple, inexpensive, and practical stuff the most, like these deli cups for holding small parts that Joshua Schacter recommended on his recent episode.
  • The Institute of Making has an online materials library that’s fun to browse through. We interviewed Liz Corbin, one of the folks that put the collection together, on our podcast not so long ago. She gives a good overview of the library’s history and its highlights, like aerogel, vantablack, and transparent concrete.
  • I’m reading Design for Cognitive Bias. Many books on this topic aim to exploit the many ways that human judgment fails us, but this one argues that we have a “duty of care” to understand and consider the consequences of our decisions on those we serve.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • Adam Savage recently took on the ambitious task of machining a giant nut and bolt. What I appreciated most about this project is that his lathe work does NOT go well. The ups and downs of the build are informative and encouraging.
  • You’ve probably seen STRANDBEEST sculptures, the giant kinetic machines that move as if they are alive. In these delightfully quirky videos, Theo Jansen, the original artist behind them, explains how they are engineered. Fun fact: Jansen used an Atari to help him with some of the math for the complex leg system.
  • VR has been in the news lately with the release of the Oculus Quest 2, the chief selling point of which is its low price ($299). This active open source project allows you to beat that by $100 if you build your own (3D printer, arduino, and soldering iron required). Pretty decent specs, no Facebook account required. Related, a really interesting interview with Jeri Ellsworth, who founded the hardware team at Valve and now runs the AR company Tilt5.
  • This web app allows you to design your own LEGO Technic parts and save them as 3D printable STLs.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Many warehouses organize their SKUs by transaction density, size, or customer ordering patterns. Amazon’s storage system eschews these factors, instead placing individual SKUs randomly in the first available spot. One of the big reasons for this is efficiency. If a single item is stored randomly in many locations across the warehouse footprint, the chances that an order filler will find themselves near it are greater.
  • I’m pretty obsessed with libraries; they are my happy place. I like them even more when they have fancy book distribution systems like Stuttgart Public Library. If you’ve never seen the main atrium of this modern architectural beauty, you’re in for a treat.
  • I enjoyed Neither Snow nor Rain, a history of the Postal Service, and recommend it if you want to get a sense of how our massive mail delivery system (with more than 30K post offices) came to be. Interesting fun fact: Until it was banned, people sometimes sent kids in the mail because it was cheaper than a train ticket.
  • The pandemic is accelerating the use of robotic automation in many US warehouses. Distributors were already moving in this direction to manage seasonal swings in e-commerce demand, but staffing and safety challenges have made investments easier to justify.
  • The Eco Cycle is an underground bicycle storage and delivery system that has been deployed in parts of Japan. The engineering is elaborate, and fun to watch.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • The Science Museum Group in the UK has put together a digital treasure trove of more than 325,000 man-made objects related to science and industry. This is what comes up when you search the word ‘machine’. For a more Zen experience, they have a random object generator.
  • This interactive NY Times article shows how decades of racist housing policy left the black neighborhoods in my hometown (Richmond, VA) sweltering. Redlined neighborhoods have fewer trees and an abundance of heat-trapping asphalt, making them on average 5 degrees hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods in the summer.


Optimal Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches.

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